Being focused on one style eventually gave Al Blackstone more opportunities. Photo by Daryl A. Getman, Courtesy Blackstone
These days, everyone tells you how important it is to be versatile. But what if you're convinced there's just one style that's right for you? It can be tough to balance a deep interest in a single specialty and still meet many choreographers' expectations. Luckily, you don't have to choose between all in or all over the place, as long as you follow your interests thoughtfully.
Kerollis and students in his 8-week Absolute Beginner Workshop at Broadway Dance Center
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
"I don't wanna go to dance!" As a kid, these were my famous words.
When packing into the car for the interminable ride to the studio, I would kick and scream so much that I earned the nickname "The Hornet." I am so glad my parents put up with my sting, because looking back, it was just the going part that I didn't like. The dance part, I loved. I always have.
If you've ever taken class with Kristin Sudeikis you know that she is as much a motivational speaker as she is a choreographer. Her approach to teaching is rooted in the idea that there should be a conversation between the dancer and all the elements that make up the dance: the music, the movement, and most importantly their connection to the other dancers in the room. Same goes for her company members when they are diving into the process of creating work.
We stepped into the studio with Sudeikis and her company to get an inside look at one of their rehearsals and chat with the dancemaker about her process:
To me, dancing is an opportunity to exist in an alternate reality. With my imagination moving galaxies per minute, there's no telling what I will do, when or how—and that's my escape from this world.
It's common for my mind to drift off and borrow ideas from a character in a Disney movie while performing with Wynton Marsalis, or to be thinking about how algorithms work while performing with Mariah Carey on "Good Morning America."
Dancers are used to communicating with their bodies. But they can forget how much they rely on verbal cues until the directions are spoken in a different language. "I arrived in France straight out of college in 1977 and didn't speak a word of French. It was pretty intimidating," says Wayne Byars, an American ballet dancer who went on to spend his entire career in France. Byars is now a sought-after teacher in Paris, but he did have his early blunders—including mistakenly attending an audition meant for female cabaret dancers.
But students shouldn't be afraid of taking classes taught in a language they do not understand. "One of the wonderful things about dance is that wherever you go, be it Paris, Tokyo, Rome, a dance studio is a dance studio. You're home, you're in your element," Byars says. Though it can be daunting to take class in a foreign language, embracing that challenge could give you a new perspective on your dancing.
What lengths would you go to in order to further your dance career? For some of us, we're willing to build our life and work in two separate cities to make our wildest dreams come true.
I recently learned that there is a term for people like me who travel between two major metropolitan areas. We "super commuters" make the choice to ride regional buses and trains up to six hours round-trip, multiple times a week, in hopes of furthering our careers while maintaining our lifestyles and affordable rents.
This ambitious career style is not for the faint of heart.
If you're not booking the jobs you want, don't assume it's a reflection of your talent. All too often, the most gifted performers get passed up for the ones who know how to work the industry better. Mistakes you don't even realize you're making could be interfering with your success.
To help you get out of your own way, Dance Magazine asked Pete Engle, dance department director at Clear Talent Group, what advice he wishes all of his clients would follow. Founded in 2003 by former dancer and longtime agent Tim O'Brien, CTG is one of today's leading agencies for dance and choreography (in addition to other fields), with offices in Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans, as well as partnerships in Chicago and Atlanta. High-profile dance clients run the gamut from contemporary whiz-kid Travis Wall to mesmerizing Memphis jooker Lil Buck to ballet/hip-hop standout Ebony Williams. Agents work closely with the dancers—often offering these very tips—to make sure they are as prepared as possible whenever an opportunity arises.
1. Snap out of class mentality.
“There is a difference between taking a class and auditioning. In class, you're dancing for yourself: You're kind of internal, looking in the mirror, making adjustments. Dancers go to a lot more classes than they do auditions, so it's more comfortable to work this way. But in an audition, you need to turn that into an external performance."
2. Don't fight your niche.
“A lot of people want to be something they're not. We had a dancer who was 25 but looked 14. She tried to make herself sexier, and kept auditioning for sexy tours. But, like it or not, this is an image-based world. Once she realized that in this industry you need to be what people see, she booked all the time. She just booked different stuff—Nickelodeon, Disney, Disney artist tours. Know your place in the market and figure out how to present that."
3. Go to conventions—even if you think you're too old.
“Commercial choreographers used to teach in the major L.A. studios. But now, a lot of them only teach at conventions—they're on PULSE, NUVO, JUMP, Monsters. We've started telling our clients to consider taking class at conventions. If you can stand out, we know for a fact that choreographers at The PULSE have hired dancers. Monsters is great for professionals on the hip-hop side. If you have a friend who knows the choreographer, take them too so they can introduce you personally."
4. Don't show up without getting the inside scoop.
“Figure out what the casting director is looking for. Research who they've hired in the past. Think about the history of this choreographer: Go on YouTube, become aware of their style, their look. And dress like you're going to be on their stage. You want to take away the imagination of the casting table. If people have to think about what you would look like in their performance, they will already be looking at the next person."
5. Improve how fast you pick up phrases.
“At auditions, they don't give you an hour to run through the choreography and let it sit in your body. They want people who can learn, internalize quickly, then perform. If you're not able to do that fast enough, you need to be taking more classes to train your muscle memory. And they need to be classes that challenge you. Too many dancers just take the classes their friends take, or the ones they feel really good in. If you haven't been in ballet in six months, guess what? Ask yourself, Am I just taking the classes I like, or the ones I need?"
6. Match your materials to your goals.
“Does your agency have everything they possibly need to market you to the industry? We'll have dancers not booking because they'll either have zero pictures for us to submit or they'll have the wrong type of photos. If you have sexier pictures, that's not going to book you a Disney job. Update your materials. It's possible that an edgier look might help you book more tours—but if you shave one side of your head, that means we can no longer submit photos of a girl with long, curly hair."
7. If jobs aren't coming, be proactive.
“Have a meeting with your agent if you're frustrated. We always tell dancers you have to control everything in your control. You can't do anything about your height or ethnicity, but you can control your performance capability, how good you are at picking up choreography, what your body looks like, what your hair looks like, the clothes you wear, the energy you're putting out. And sometimes, you just need to give it time. It can take a year or two of maturing before you can confidently walk in a room, take charge of the space and show who you are as a dancer."